The following post was first published by the Daily Telegraph newspaper 2/1/15.
I’ll let you in on a little secret. Princesses? They are often far more resilient than we give them credit for being.
Over the course of the Christmas holidays I had the opportunity to watch a gaggle of little girls, aged between three and five, at play. They were a blur of bare-feet, tousled long hair and flowing Princess gowns. Apparently, a 200-piece ribbon and hair clip set left under the Christmas tree was urgently required to be opened for immediate distribution. There was much plotting, and then rounds of relentless lobbying of parents, until this wish was granted.
Nearby an exhausted little sister, still in her pink swimmers from the beach, was curled up asleep cuddling a doughnut. This dessert obsessed “Sleeping Beauty” was quite literally growling at any would-be-stylists who ventured too near, or tried to wake her.
It struck me that despite our concerns over the tyranny of pink and it’s feared innate capacity to render girls immediately docile, none of these little women were in the least passive or afraid of displaying leadership qualities.
How very interesting that whilst the grown-ups spent most of “No Gender December” worrying about the dangers of pink and blue, and what toys to permit poor Santa to bring, the kids just got on with the job of playing.
That’s not to say I think initiatives that raise awareness about how gendered the toy shelves are don’t have merit. Yet education is key – not attempts to ban.
I find young people fascinated when I explain that the segregation based on hues that is now so common is in fact a relatively modern phenomena. Up until the introduction of chemical dyes in the mid-late 1800’s, children predominately all wore white. However, when colour was used, pink was frequently chosen for little boys; particularly those of high social standing. Early renaissance art depicts baby Jesus frocked in pink, whilst Queen Victoria’s third son Prince Arthur was depicted in both pink and white.
In fact, we see this pink-for boys trend popularised even in the 20th Century. A 1918 editorial from Earnshaw’s Infants’ Department stated that pink was:
“…a more decided and stronger colour…more suitable for a boy; while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for a girl.”
Today, however, marketers have firmly latched on to pretty-in-pink for females, using this to sell everything from pens to tool boxes (and then adding a hefty mark-up for the pink privilege).
Meanwhile the types of toys on offer don’t seem to have changed with the times at all. Kitchen sets are still frequently depicted with a girl on the packaging, whilst the dress-ups featuring the professions that are urgently attempting to recruit more women (such as construction and the sciences) are plastered with pics of little lads.
It is helpful then to call into question such stereotypes. But it’s not helpful to panic or worse still stigmatise those children, like the girls I witnessed, who want to embrace their inner pink-glitter-ribbons-sparkly-trinkets self.
Smart parents get this. Growing up I was very much Team Barbie. And that was ok. My sister meanwhile was pro-The Lone Ranger, Tonto and Steve Austin The Bionic Man. And that was ok. My parents didn’t seem in the least phased by our different tastes and we certainly never quarrelled over this; rather it seemed to us incredibly convenient for it meant we had dolls of both genders ready to animate.
Smart celebrity parents Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt get it. When their daughter Shiloh started requesting to only wear traditionally male clothes and be called John, they respected these wishes and recently publicly announced their decision in order that the rest of us might too.
Rather than closing the toy box lid, and our minds, the key is to be open when it comes to issues relating to gender and identity. And to realise as well that what our children see modelled in their homes matters most.
All the budding royals I saw at play had smart, ambitious mums and dads who both actively parent them. Within that social circle too are an incredibly loving gay couple, and happy and successful singles. A virtual rainbow of grown-up possibilities. It is this Kingdom that will shape them. The rest? Mere props.